Thursday, 15 August 2019

For a "Western" Yoon-Suin

I am working on a project I think of as The Meeting of the Waters, which is a setting book taking the approach of Yoon-Suin but allowing the creation of a fantasy Northumberland (which can really be dropped into any Europeanish/Westernish/occidental sort of setting).

Here is something from it, an intro for one of the handful of fixed settlements (most of the rest being randomly generated):

Joyous Garde 

The town of Joyous Garde appears suddenly, nestled amidst pastures in a hidden fold of the landscape, like a secret the hills are keeping from the world outside. Around it loops a high wall which divides the town proper from those who dwell in huts clustered around it at its feet: what is inside the wall is known as Gatewithin, the abode of all that is right and proper; outside is Gatewithout, where dirt, disease and death stalk.

Twice a year, at the summer and winter solstices, the people living in Gatewithin and Gatewithout switch places for one night, the only rule on those nights being that they may take nothing in or out of Gatewithin for the duration, whether coming or going beyond the walls. For some this is an opportunity for reflection; for most it is the opportunity for debauchery or the settling of old scores within the heady air of a night free from the usual shackles of custom and status.

The Swapping Nights, as they are known, may be intended to reflect the role of Fate in human life - Fate being the personal, capricious force which the people of the town worship as a God. The most frequent guise in which Fate appears in their religion is as the personification of sudden reversals of fortune, in which he has the visage of a two-faced, prancing green man with the horns of a stag. Yet the religion itself is characterised by great disagreement about the inevitability or alterability of Fate, and about what precisely is Fated and how that is known, and dozens of churches can be found in the town, each with its own zealously-promoted variant of the truth.

Joyous Garde is under the de facto rule of its burghers, who elect a town council and make what decisions are necessary save one, which is always made for them by ancient law: to give the town’s de jure rulers whatever they demand in taxes each autumn. These de jure rulers are the Nineyear family, an extended clan of cloud giants who own Joyous Garde and all the land around it for miles in all directions. Their tax demands vary at their whim, for they have genuine need of nothing which the town can offer, and the Nineyear family delight in abusing their privileges in malign and unpredictable ways. One year they may demand a virgin girl to burn alive and devour; the next they might require the entire contents of the warehouses of all the members of the brewer’s guild; the one after that they could simply ask for a bonnet each of strawberries - so as to make the population of the town anxious to find out what the demand is to be the following year when “the other shoe falls”. This unpredictability may, indeed, by the source of the townsfolks’ obsession with the vagaries of Fate. For the rest of the year, however, the giants ignore the town entirely.

The ancestral home of the Nineyears is Stuck Gates, a great castle hidden at the foot of a hill a few miles from Joyous Garde. It is so named because its main gates are permanently locked, only to be opened when an Emperor once again rules at Dolorous Garde (see page [x]). Stuck Gates sits in a vast forested estate, mostly comprising the Nineyears’ hunting grounds, dotted with overgrown ruins and monuments from an era in which the family were evidently more prosperous than they are now. Much of the estate is rarely visited if ever - the haunt of outlaws and fugitive creatures released for sport but never subsequently killed.

Tuesday, 13 August 2019

Bog Standard Capitalism and the Price of the Hobby: What Would Jurgen Habermas Do?

My last post apparently attracted the attention of some people on a certain forum site you may be aware of (traffic source stats are a wonderful thing). The discussion is actually perfectly reasonable for the most part, but I was intrigued by the post I pasted in above.

"Bog standard capitalism" is here defined as "setting the retail price of your product at the upper end of what your customers would be willing to pay but not so high that they don't cough up". I would quibble that this is not exactly what I wrote in the post. And I would also quibble that this is an accurate definition of "bog standard capitalism" - it sounds more like a description of "bog standard pricing in circumstances of oligopolistic competition" to me. But then what do I know? Noisms' thoughts on the OSR publishing as oligopoly will have to wait for another day.

The reason why this post intrigued me is what it says about modern geekdom and its "intensely relaxed" attitude to what Habermas would probably call the colonisation of their lifeworld by market rationality.

Let me put it in less pretentious terms. A hobby is a deeply human experience of shared communal values and respect for craftsmanship and skill. It is the endeavour of amateurs who do what they do for the love of it and out of a desire to collaborate with peers who feel the same way. When it is subject to the forces of "bog standard capitalism" much is gained but much is also lost. Its hobbyish nature is denuded and is replaced by price-based considerations which distort existing relationships forever.

It is hypocritical of me to complain about this for many reasons. First, I am in the lucky position of having gainful employment which pays me comparatively well and gives me quite a bit of free time to write stuff about elf games. Second, I have released RPG materials for money. Third, I did that in such a way that, it seemed to me, reflected a fair approach to pricing - a luxury I would not necessarily have been able to afford if I was doing it professionally.

But be that as it may, none of us is without sin. My desire is only to point out that it's good that people can now make money and support themselves independently as professional producers of amazing stuff. Yet it has its downsides. Just look at what has happened to "the OSR" in the period 2008-2019 if you don't believe me.

Monday, 12 August 2019

A Lot of RPG Books Are Too Expensive

Not all are. But a lot of them. I won't name names; every reader will have their own ideas about which releases constitute good value for money and which do not. And it's not exactly a question of expensive=bad. Some expensive books are worth their price. But the number is fairly small.

How did the publishing model for RPG books, particularly OSR ones, become so skewed towards high-production values and hence high costs?

It seems to me that, probably entirely accidentally, the "indie"/OSR/kickstarter-publishing wing of the RPG world has moved towards a Games Workshop-based approach to pricing. This can be summarised as: make the costs so high that people will moan, gripe and complain, but not so high that they won't make the purchase.

I emphasise that this is probably entirely accidental. Nobody thinks that way by design. I think social pressure to make good-looking books may explain most of the development; modern geekdom is defined if nothing else than by acquisitiveness, and in particular acquisitiveness of items that are aesthetically pleasing in some sense. Pricey "event" books generate buzz and expenditure just like a Hollywood blockbuster does, and this creates a certain expectation, if not exactly demand, which publishers or creators feel obliged to meet in future.

I was until fairly recently ambivalent about this, leaning towards the positive, even. But as time goes on and I get older I increasingly feel as though all of this has negative effects: it prices kids out of the hobby unless they've got indulgent parents; it (relatedly) results in the hobby becoming more of an adult-oriented pursuit than it used to be; it produces an emphasis on style over substance; and it makes the hobby resemble less of a hobby and more of an industry or - perhaps a better metaphor - a system of devolved private patronage. I am particularly unsure whether this last development can be sustainable in the long term.

It is useless to complain about market preferences. All I can do to reverse them is to try to make products that are inexpensive and heavy on substance, and write blog posts like this. Consider half of that project completed.

Friday, 9 August 2019

Ways of Describing Combat

Tolkenian Heroic Expressionism
How many there were the Company could not count. The affray was sharp, but the orcs were dismayed by the fierceness of the defence. Legolas shot two through the throat. Gimli hewed the legs from another that had sprung up on Balin's tomb. Boromir and Aragorn slew many. When thirteen had fallen the rest fled shrieking...
-The Fellowship of the Ring 
A lot of the violence in Tolkien's work happens "off camera", so to speak, or is described in very broad brush strokes. Even when we get a "live" account, as in the scene above, it tends to be a sketch or a few edited highlights - the only blow-by-blow fight we really get in The Lord of the Rings, at least as far as I can recall off the top of my head, is the scene just after this one when Frodo gets stabbed by the orc captain's spear. (Possibly the fight between Eowyn and the Witch King of Angmar also counts.) The point is not to get into the nitty-gritty, but to express important plot points and depict the heroes as properly heroic.

Tolkien wasn't interested in the minutiae of combat, and certainly not in glorifying that aspect of war (perhaps for perfectly natural personal reasons). He was more interested in replicating the way in which combat is described in the medieval and dark-age literature which he enjoyed, which tends also to be a fairly terse or indirectly-reported affair. Fighting in those source texts serves the purpose of making it clear that the heroes are heroic - the idea that combat should in itself be realistically depicted or in itself entertaining is unheard of.

Replicating Tolkenian Heroic Expressionism in an RPG is hard if one is using a traditional combat system where the flow of combat is necessarily narrated round-by-round. ("You swing at the hit it...the orc misses you...") This, incidentally, is why the Rolemaster combat system was such a uniquely poor fit for actually replicating Tolkien's oeuvre, like so much else about MERP. Also incidentally, despite the hard-boiled nature of Zelazny's prose (so different to Tolkien's), he frequently adopts this kind of approach too.

Vancian Detached or "Bathetic" Realism
The assassin ignored Zarfo. To Reith he said, "Please do not make an undignified display. The process then becomes protracted and painful for us all. So then - "
Zarfo roared: "Stand away; have I not warned you?" He snatched up a chair and struck the assassin to the ground. Zarfo was not yet satisfied. He picked up the splint, jabbed it into the back of the man's thigh, through the rust-ochre corduroy of his trousers. "Halt!" wailed the assassin. "That is Inoculation Number One!"
Zafro seized a handful of splints from the splayed-open wallet. "And here," he roared, "are numbers Two to Twelve!" And with a foot on the man's neck he thrust the handful into the twitching buttocks. 
-Servants of the Wankh
As in every other aspect of his writing, Vance's accounts of combat are detached and somewhat arch, but it is also possible to detect in them a genuine understanding of how violence tends to unfold in the "real world" - in a messy and entirely unromantic way, and almost never on fair or equal terms. Nobody is really edified by it (except in the boxing ring).

Vancian Bathetic Realism is the way in which combat almost always unfolds in RPGs my experience, at least in your average non-crunchy system like Basic D&D which doesn't artificially "balance" encounters. It is an untidy affair, it very often explodes without warning, and it has nasty consequences. (Rolemaster combat is much more like this, too.)

Wolfeian Hyper-Realism
The slave with the scorpion advanced first, lashing the air to make a savage sound he must have hoped would frighten me. I stepped forward and slashed at the rawhide lashes. He jumped back and in doing so impaled himself on one of the javelins held by the man behind him.
The terrible thing was not that it killed him, but that it did not. With the head of the javelin in his back, he remained alive, bleeding and gasping like a fish on a gig as he dropped the scorpion and flailed about with his arms.
I caught it up - and as I did so, saw that Pasicrates was almost upon me. Its stock was of some heavy wood, and the leather-tipped lashes looked as though they might easily entangle a man; I threw it at his legs.
He was too quick for me. The stock rang against the bronze facing of his hoplon. I swung Falcata in the downward stroke that is most powerful of all. Again he was too quick, raising his hoplon to block her blade, but it bit the bronze like cheese, cut the hoplon to its centre, and leaped free as a lynx springs from a rock.
-Soldier of the Mist
In Wolfe's books we do often get blow-by-blow accounts of combat and they are exciting to read: there is a genuine thrill in his depictions and also frequently a certain poetry ("bleeding and gasping like a fish on a gig"). There is a bloody, often almost sadistic, realism to his fights, but it is not the genuine realism of Vance - it is, if you will, realism with knobs on: there is a cinematic quality to it that makes it, if not melodramatic, then at least deliberately entertaining. I would include George RR Martin's depictions of combat in this category also.

Wolfeian hyper-realism is what a lot of crunchier RPG combat system tend to aim for. These run the gamut from Warhammer Fantasy Role Play 2nd edition, to Cyberpunk 2020, to Shadowrun, to GURPS. In these systems, fighting is itself a kind of sub-game, and is designed to in itself be both fun and sufficiently detailed that it feels real and consequential.

Mievillian Comic-Book Cinematism 
But then, at that moment, as Bellis retreated from that hot carnage of pig- and sheep-blood and drained offal, the repulsive frenzy of the anophelii repast and then their bloated torpor, a mosquito-woman looked up from the sheep she had arrived at too late to drain, and saw their retreat. She hunched her shoulders and flew dangling towards them, her mouth agape and he proboscis dripping, her stomach only a little swelled by her sisters' leftovers, eager for fresh meat, angling past the cactacae and scabmettler guards and bearing down on the terrified humans, her wings awail, and Bellis felt herself jerked by fear back towards that confused trash of disjointed images, and she saw Uther Doul step forward calmly into the mosquito-woman's path, raise his hands (carrying two guns now) and wait until she was nearly upon him, till her mouthparts jutted at his face, and he fired. Heat and noise and black lead exploded from his weapons and burst the mosquito-woman's stomach and face.
-The Scar
'Nuff said. Combat here is stylised: for all its detail, it is not a realistic depiction of a fight, and nor is it meant to be - it is about enjoying the visceral, almost-visual thrill of violence for its own sake, more comic-book than film.

Mievillian Comic-Book Cinematism has its paradigm expression in D&D 4th edition, of course, though there are other systems which aim to produce something like it - Exalted, I suppose; Rifts; and GURPS in some of its guises.

Tuesday, 6 August 2019

The Sound of D&D

If you are asked for a musical genre to associate with the fantasy/SF genre, you'd probably choose metal, thinking of, for example:

Alternatively, you might choose the Gustav Holst-inspired film soundtrack classical end of the spectrum, also encompassing whatever type of music Enya is:

Neither of these has ever really sounded like the music that is going on inside my head when I read fantasy and SF fiction or play D&D, though. Fantasy/SF-inspired metal is generally too self-consciously doom-laden, and the classical-inspired stuff tends to be too faux-portentous or grandiose (much as I love me some Wrath of Khan OST).

These things are all a matter of taste, of course, but I more and more am coming around to 1970s jazz fusion as my personal backing music for D&D - specifically, the music generated by the weird conglomeration of virtuosos surrounding keyboard legend and crazed scientologist Chick Corea, particularly the outfit Return to Forever.  What is it about this music that screams JACK VANCE MOTHERFUCKER so loudly in my ear? Is it just that I can totally imagine a Dying-Earth spellcaster mixing potions in her laboratory to this soundtrack in some long-forgotten late-70s exploitation flick?:

Or this kind of sounds like the background music playing while somebody is travelling across the countryside in a never-made anime version of Lyonesse?

Or that this actually does sound like an alien chase in an Arabian desert (wait until the 2:25 mark)?

Or that it sort of feels like Cugel could be in the audience here, nodding his approval?

Monday, 5 August 2019

Matter is What I Am Not: On Thin and Thick Tertiary Realities

Patrick S asked me to write a blog post about the Holodeck. This spurred me to think about tertiary realities in general.

What I mean by a tertiary reality is a subreality within fiction. Star Trek characters visit the Holodeck. A character in a novel has a dream or hallucination. Somebody in a film tells a story. And so on. In other words, something which is fictional or illusory taking place in an already fictional narrative (the secondary reality).

Tertiary realities are useful for doing various things. They can give an insight into the psychology of the characters or foreshadow an important event (think of the dream sequences in American Beauty, or Luke's imaginary duel with Darth Vader in The Empire Strikes Back). They can provide a space in which characters can develop outside of the normal framework in which we're used to seeing them (lots of Star Trek Holodeck scenes are like this - the one which springs to mind right now is "The Emissary", in which a "calisthenics" program provides the opportunity for us to see, er, a progression in the relationship Worf and Kehleyr). Or they can just be a cheap but possibly effective trick in which the viewer thinks they're seeing something purportedly "real", but it turns out they're not (the aforementioned scene in The Empire Strikes Back is an example of this, obviously - I guess Dallas is the most famous extended one in history).

What they are not particularly good at is provoking a sense of threat. If the viewer knows something is just a dream, or just a story-within-a-story, or just a holographic projection, it's hard to get interested unless there is known to be some impact on the "real" world - that is, the secondary reality. This is why filmmakers try to keep the "it was all just a dream - or was it?" motif hidden until the end (a la Labyrinth, or indeed Dallas), or make it clear that what is happening in the tertiary reality will have serious effects in the secondary one - like all those Next Gen episodes in which Something On the Holodeck Becomes Sentient and Tries to Take Over the Enterprise (or whatever). There is also a very narrow middle ground in which it's possible to communicate to an audience or reader that what they are experiencing might be a dream and might not - a lot of David Lynch's films do this, for example, as I suppose does Inception at the end. But in the main a tertiary reality only generates emotional investment if there is something about it that means something in the "real world".

(Inception is an interesting case inasmuch as it proves the general point that if it's clear what's happening is in a tertiary reality, the audience doesn't really care. There's no sense of danger at all in the action sequences in Inception in which the characters are mucking around in interior dreamscapes and fighting off the weightless ciphers they encounter there. It's only when something else is at stake that it's really worth watching.)

A DM is venturing onto thin ice when getting his characters involved in dreams, drug-fuelled hallucinations, giant illusions and so on for these very reasons - it's easy to get the players to join in for the fun of it, but not very easy to get them to feel a sense of danger. That has to come about either because they're  going to get trapped in the tertiary reality or something that happens within it is going to harm - or kill - their PCs for real. He steps onto even thinner ice if he does the "it was all just a dream" bait-and-switch; I can't really imagine that ever ending well, because if there is one thing that really ought to bind a DM as a point of honour, it's that he shouldn't out-and-out deceive the players about the purpose or nature of the campaign itself.

Yet I also think that such episodes are, on balance, worth doing, for precisely the reasons identified earlier in this post: they give the players an opportunity to think about their PCs in new ways and in new and unfamiliar frameworks. Something as simple as asking the players "What did your PC dream about while sleeping in the wizard's tower?" (or whatever) can generate highly creative answers which get the player thinking about their character as though they are a real person. And that is often the key to a successful campaign.

Friday, 2 August 2019

A Day in the Life of a Monster: How to Make Better Bestiaries

From JA Baker's The Peregrine:

[A] peregrine's day usually begins with a slow, leisurely flight from the roosting place to the nearest suitable bathing stream. This may be as much as ten to fifteen miles away. After bathing, another hour or two is spent in drying the feathers, preening, and sleeping. The hawk rouses only gradually from his post-bathing lethargy. His first flights are short and unhurried. He moves from perch to perch, watching other birds and occasionally catching an insect or mouse on the ground. He reenacts the whole process of learning to kill that he went through when he first left the eerie: the first, short, tentative flights; the longer, more confident ones; the playful, mock attacks at inanimate objects, such as falling leaves or drifting feathers; the games with other birds, changing to a pretence or attack, and then to the first serious attempt to kill. True hunting may be a comparatively brief process at the end of this long re-enactment of the hawk's adolescence.  
Hunting is always preceded by some form of play. The hawk may feint at partridges, harass jackdaws or lapwings, skirmish with a crow. Sometimes, without warning, he will suddenly kill. Afterwards he seems baffled by what he has done, and he may leave the kill where it fell and return to it later when he is genuinely hunting. Even when he is hungry, and has killed in anger, he may sit beside his prey for ten to fifteen minutes before starting to feed. In these cases the dead bird is usually unmarked, and the hawk seems to be puzzled by it. He nudges it idly with his bill. When blood flows, he feeds at once.

Imagine if RPG bestiary entries were written like that.

Now, we can't all be JA Baker, widely thought of as one of the greatest nature writers to have ever lived, and I suppose at some point length becomes an issue. But what we can think about is how to actually describe monster behaviour which is relevant and interesting to the players - such as, what a monster generally does over the course of a day or night. That allows them to learn patterns of activity through observation and/or listening to experts, and to plan accordingly if they are clever enough. If you know that orcs usually nap mid-morning after their breakfast of elven infants' livers on toast, or whatever, you also know when to plan your attack on their village for best effect.

That may be too Gygaxian-naturalistic depending on the style of game you're going for, but the idea that a DM can predict what a monster is likely to be doing at a given time of day is also useful for interesting encounters on the cuff and adding depth to the randomness of the reaction dice: imagine if each monster had a different set of reaction dice values depending on the rough time of day - not all that hard to pull off, and not requiring two paragraphs of Barkerian purple prose either.

Thursday, 1 August 2019

Monsters and Manuals' 1500th Anniversary: Half Time After the Time?

I hadn't noticed until just now, but the previous entry was the 1500th published Monsters & Manuals post.

Crikey. Blimey. Shiver my timbers and knock me down with a feather. That's a lot of posts, isn't it? The work of a tragic case, a strange obsessive with too much time on his hands? A bloody-minded and obstinate eccentric intent on continually howling his half-formed thoughts into the void to no effect on anything "because fuck you, that's why"? Or a self-important know-it-all who can't bear the thought that his ill thought-out ideas and ignorant opinions should not be heard by anyone who will listen?

You decide.

The problem with having written 1500 posts is that there are so fucking many of them. Picking a top 10, or even just a general "best of", is not easy. I mean, this year there have already been 102, and it would take hours just to sift through those. I'd need to clear a week of my schedule if I wanted to whittle All My Posts Ever down to a top 50 - and that's not to claim that it's because there would be 50 brilliant ones; just that once it got to 50 or so I'd have no way to pick one set of 10 over another.

So what's a long-term blogger to do on an occasion such as this? I guess it's just to spend 30 minutes or so randomly clicking through his back catalogue ("Did I really write that?" "I'd totally forgotten that one" "What was I thinking there?") and picking out some forgotten gems - or, at least, some non-turds. I did that, and found the following ones I liked, five-ish by year:

Chaos Patrons
Sumo Clerics
The Two Towers of Fantasy
Beware the Were Stuff
Govgim Dahl, the Reluctant Demigod

We Do Not Know What Thing the Universe Is
Towards a Theory of Demihumans
Yiyik's Hookah
Warhammer and British and American Fantasy
Sorcery! Art

Man on Wire and Never to be Played Games
Authentic Cave Scratchings
Panthro Says Silly Names Are Silly
Toying With Things That Should Be Avoided
The Magic Faraway Express Sailing to Utopia

The Cannibal Elves of Byrkije
The Undead Pigs of Andong
Larry Elmore and Utter Ridiculosity: A Love Story
Faking It; Or, You'd Better be Al Pacino
I Blame the Children; Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying And Love Declaring Actions Before Rolling Initiative

Parachuting From a Plane While DJing
Being an Illustration of the Contents of 1-Mile Hexes Through Examination of Divers Locations in the British Isles
The Contents of Hexes
Samurai Sandbox and Noisms' Reactivity Spectrum
Noisms' Verfremdungseffekt

Hexology I: Lindisfarne Case Study
Hexology II: Travel
The Tri-Dimensional Planebox Megacrawlathon Sandhexamagig
On Charm; Or, the Perfection of Imperfection
Abstracted Weapon BenefitsSwords and Arrows and Dragonslaying, and Player Creativity Within the d6 for Damage Framework

Out With the Old
Spear of Eternity
Angus McBride Ate My Hamster
On Reaching Into the Subconscious Mind
Deliberate RPG Rulebook Sass
The Art of Describing a Monster

Faerie Knights
In Defence of Violence
The Importance of Shadowrun
Watching Wesley Crusher DM a Game
Paradigmatic D&D: OR, a Verbeeg, Grell, Ankheg and Orog Walk Into a Bar...
The Death of HP Lovecraft

Moons of Jupiter Ring Map and Random Moons of Jupiter
On the DM's Guild; Or, Let's Be Innovative with the Forgotten Realms
The Imagination is a Muscle
The Seaside Town That They Forgot to Bomb: On Psychic Distance and the Victims of the New
Random Encounters with RooksReaction Tables Which Create the World, and More Game World Building Reaction Tables
Grimdark Kitsch: Let's Talk About Shit

We Were Never Being Boring, We Were Never Being Bored...
In Praise of Maximalism
Creating Things in Order to Be Free
Once You Pop You Can't Stop
Literary Dungeon Making for Fun and Profit
The Pacification of the Nerd
Where's Wally and the Shadow Fantasy Genre

What Is the Blogosphere for Now?
Everybody Loves Our Game: The OSR Scene
The Homogenization of D&D
Harlan Ellison, Cognitive Dissonance, and Defaulting to Openness
Gygaxian Scientasy
The Modern D&D Venn Diagram

British Regional Accents: A Guide for American DMs
Really Very Much Faster Than Light
My Recommendations
Here, Piggy Piggy Piggy
Rust Fantasy - With a Hey Nonny No!
Real Life Maps, Hexcrawling, and Rustic Fantasy Names

Monday, 29 July 2019

You Wankher! Or, Glimpsed-at Worldbuilding

Having read City of the Chasch a long time ago, I've recently moved on to the second volume in Jack Vance's "Planet of Adventure" series - Servants of the Wankh. (Apparently the title was changed in later editions to Servants of the Wannekh to avoid embarassment for readers in the Commonwealth. I have an old pulp paperback version from 1975, so mine has the original title; I have to try to keep it hidden when reading it on the train lest people think I'm reading some sort of xenophilic alien porn story. But I digress.)

Jack Vance had a tin ear for proper nouns in alien languages - his approach seems to have involved just putting jumbles of consonants and vowels together. Pnume, Phung, Dirdir, Coad, Az, Braz...they sound a bit like the kind of species and place names an 11-year old invents. But other than that, it's astonishing how much of an interesting vibe there is to his worldbuilding, for want of a better word. These books are each about 150 pages long and the action is typically Vance-paced and lickety-split. One doesn't get the impression he spent a long time plotting them, or thinking about the world of Tschai in a deep and meaningful way.

But nonetheless, it does manage to feel deep regardless. I think this is because of his expert use of what I'm going to christen Glimpsed-at Worldbuilding - a way of referring obliquely to places, races and things that will never come up again in the story but make the world seem very complicated, rich, and lived-in. Take this section, for instance:

Coad was a busy town. Along the crooked streets, in and out of the ale-coloured sunlight, moved men and women of many castes and colours: Yellow Islanders and Black Islanders, Horasin bark-merchants muffled in grey robes; Caucasoids such as Traz from the Aman Steppe; Dirdirmen and Dirdir-men hybrids; dwarfish Sieps from the eastern slopes of the Ojzanalai who played music in the streets; a few flat-faced white men from the far south of Kislovan. The natives, the Tans, were an affable fox-faced people, with wide polished cheek bones, pointed chins, russet or dark brown hair cut in a ledge across the ears and foreheads. Their usual garments were knee-length breeches, embroidered vest, a round black pie-plate hat. Palanquins were numerous, carried by short gnarled men with oddly long noses and stringy black hair: apparently a race to themselves; Reith saw them in no other occupation. Later he learned them to be natives of Grenie at the head of the Dwan Zher.... Once Traz grabbed his elbow and pointed to a pair of thin men in loose black trousers, black capes with tall collars all but enveloping their faces, soft cylindrical black hats with wide brims: caricatures of mystery and intrigue. "Pnumekin!" hissed Traz in something between shock and outrage. "Look at them! They walk among other men without a look aside, and their minds full of strange thinking!"

This is easily caricatured as akin to the Mos Eisley cantina, but the crucial difference between what Vance is doing here and what Lucas was doing in that scene in Star Wars is that here you get those little extra snippets of pseudo information - names, places - that give the reader a sense that there really is an authentic world out there rather than just a lot of extra puppets and costumes in the studio. These are like tiny little amuses-bouches for the imagination: what's a Siep? What are Yellow Islanders? What's the Dwan Zher and why are the natives of Grenie rushing around with palanquins? You hope you'll find out, but at the same time you're almost happier not to, so that you can imagine for yourself.

I also think it's pretty clear that Vance was making this stuff up as he went along - he probably didn't have the answers for any of those questions yet either, until and unless they became significant. As a way of worldbuilding I think that's surprisingly effective: it makes things seem somehow untidy and illogical, which is of course precisely how the real world (and presumably real "worlds" if they indeed exist).

Pulling this off as a DM is not easy, because it places a lot of strain on one's creativity, but also rewarding: eventually, the PCs might want to find out the answers to those questions, and you're going therefore to have to decide for yourself what a Siep is, where the Yellow Islands are, and all the rest of it. But that's going to be fun for you too - which, let's face it, is all that really matters.

Friday, 26 July 2019

"Well," she said, "How can you be killed?"

I have been reading The Mabinogion. Medieval Welsh shaggy dog stories with something bizarre and D&D-able on every page. Here are some ideas for your next game:

"'I will give you a cauldron,' [said Bendigeidfran], 'and the property of the cauldron is that if you throw into it one of your men who is killed today, then by tomorrow he will be as good as ever except that he will not be able to speak.'" (From "The Second Branch")


"After [the feast] Pwyll got up to take a walk, and he made for the top of a mound that was above the court, called Gorsedd Arberth. 'Lord,' said one of the court, 'the strange thing about the mound is that whatever nobleman sits on it will not leave there without one of two things happening: either he will be wounded or injured, or else he will see something wonderful.'" (From "The First Branch")


"Math son of Mathonwy was lord over Gwynedd...At that time, Math son of Mathonwy could not live unless his feet were in the lap of a virgin, except when the turmoil of war prevented him." (From "The Third Branch")


"'You know of Math son of Mathonwy's special attribute,' said Gilfaethway. 'Whatever whispering goes on between people - no matter how quiet - once the wind catches hold of it then Math will know about it.'" (From "The Third Branch")


"'It is not easy to kill me with a blow. You would have to spend a year making the spear that would strike me, working on it only when people were at Mass on Sunday.' 

'Are you sure of that? she said.

'Sure, God knows,' he said. 'I cannot be killed indoors,' he said, 'nor out of doors; I cannot be killed on horseback, nor on foot.'

'Well,' she said, 'how can you be killed?'" (From "The Fourth Branch" - I won't spoil the answer; suffice to say you will never think of it in a million years)


"'There is a mound called the Mound of Mourning, and in the mound there is a cairn, and in the cairn there is a serpent, and in the serpent's tail there is a stone. And these are the attributes of the stone: whoever holds it in one hand will have as much gold as he wishes in the other hand. And I lost my eye fighting that serpent.'" (From "Peredur, Son of Efrog")


"'Maiden,' said Peredur, 'where is the empress?'

'Between me and God, you will not see her again unless you kill an oppressor that is in the forest over there.'

'What sort of oppressor is it?'

'A stag, as swift as the swiftest bird, and there is one horn in his forehead, as long as a spear-shaft, and as sharp as the sharpest thing. And he eats the tops of the trees and what grass there is in the forest. And he kills every animal he finds in the forest, and those he does not kill die of starvation. And worse than that, he comes every day and drinks the fishpond dry, and leaves the fish exposed, and most of them die before it fills up again with water.'" (From "Peredur, Son of Efrog")


"The first [plague] was the arrival of a certain people called the Coraniaid. And so great was their knowledge that there was no conversation anywhere on the island that they did not know about, however softly it was spoken, provided the wind carried it. Because of that, no harm could be done to them." (From "Lludd and Llefelys")


"'God knows,' said the maiden, 'it's a great shame that you cannot be rescued; and it would only be right for a woman to help you. God knows I have never seen a better young man for a woman than you. If you had a woman friend, you would be the best friend a woman could have; if you had a mistress, you would be the best lover. And because of that,' she said, 'whatever I can do to rescue you, I will. Take this ring and place it on your finger, and put this stone in your hand, and close your fist around the stone, and as long you hide it, it will hide you too.'" (From "The Lady of the Well")


"Suddenly they heard a noise. They looked in the direction of the noise, and they could see a dwarf riding a big, sturdy horse, powerful, wide-nostrilled, ground-devouring, courageous, and in the dwarf's hand there was a whip. Near the dwarf they could see a woman on a horse, pale-white and handsome with pace smooth and stately, and she was dressed in a golden garment of brocaded silk. And close to her a knight on a great, muddy charger, with heavy shining armour on him and his horse. And they were sure that they had never seen a man and horse and armour whose size impressed them more, and all riding close together.

'Geraint,' said Gwenhwyfar, 'do you recognise the large knight over there?'

'No,' he replied, 'That massive, strange armour allows neither his face nor his features to be seen.'

'Go, maiden,' said Gwenhwyfar, 'and ask the dwarf who the knight is.'

The maiden went to meet the dwarf. The dwarf waited for the maiden when he saw her approaching him. She asked the dwarf, 'Who is the knight?' she said.

'I will not tell you that,' he replied.

'Why?' she said.

'Because your status is not that of a person for whom it is proper to speak with my lord.'

Then the maiden turned her horse's head toward the knight. With that the dwarf struck her with a whip that was in his hand, across her face and eyes, so that the blood flowed. Because of the pain from the blow the maiden returned to Gwenhwyfar, complaining of the pain.

'The dwarf behaved towards you in a very ugly way,' said Geraint. 'I shall go,' said Geraint, 'and find out who the knight is.'

'Go,' said Gwenhwyfar. 

Geraint came to the dwarf. He said, 'Who is the knight?'

'I will not tell you,' said the dwarf.

'I will ask it of the knight personally,' he replied.

'You will not, by my faith,' said the dwarf. 'Your status is not high enough to entitle you to speak with my lord.'

'I,' said Geraint, 'have spoken with a man who is as good as your lord,' and he turned his horse's head towards the knight. The dwarf overtook him and struck him where he had struck the maiden, until the blood stained the mantle that Geraint was wearing. Geraint placed his hand on the hilt of his sword and turned things over in his head, but decided that it was no revenge for him to kill the dwarf while the armed knight could take him cheaply and without armour. He returned to Gwenhwyfar." (From "Geraint, Son of Erbin")